Whistleblower awarded damages

Jury votes 9-3 that firing was wrongful

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SANDPOINT — A Bonner County jury awarded $56,000 in damages Friday to an excavation crew foreman who alleged that he was fired for reporting safety violations on the Sand Creek Byway construction project.

The jury voted 9-3 in favor of Jay Nelson’s claims that Parsons RCI, the U.S. Highway 95 rerouting project’s lead contractor, had wrongfully terminated him. The jury of nine men and three women further ruled that Nelson did not qualify for protection under the Idaho Protection of Public Employees Act because he was not an employee of the Idaho Transportation Department.

Nelson maintained he was wrongfully fired from the $106 million construction project in 2010 for going over the head of on-the-ground supervisors and taking his complaints to higher-ups at Parsons.

Nelson, of Rathdrum, testified that he witnessed numerous safety transgressions by another heavy equipment operator, which included allowing employees to work in the slide path of an excavator, encouraging a laborer to enter an excavation with a severed power line and allowing a 20-foot section of pipe to roll down a slope and hit a worker.

Parsons rejected Nelson’s allegations and contends he was let go as a part of reduction in force that coincided with the wrapping up of mass-excavation work on the project.

Nelson’s counsel, Susan Troppmann, emphasized during her closing remarks that her client was the only person let go during the prime of the narrow construction season in the Panhandle.

“Parsons reduced their workforce by one — that was the extent of the RIF,” said Troppmann, noting that Parsons found work for Nelson’s work colleagues. “This is a company that does multi-billion-dollar projects all over the world and they needed to reduce its workforce in Sandpoint, Idaho, by one,” she said.

Parsons’ attorney, Michael Ramsden, said the majority of Nelson’s safety claims were ultimately validated by a supervisor. Parsons’ emphasized that safety is a core value of Parsons’ but it was not a value embraced by all rank-and-file employees in the field.

“They just weren’t buying into what Parsons was begging the employees to do and that is to reveal this stuff so it can be taught about so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over,” Ramsden said during closing arguments.

The jury deliberated for about four hours before rendering its verdicts.

The defense argued that Nelson’s termination cost him $124,000 in lost wages for work that he could have done on the project.

A juror who declined to be identified said the those in favor of damages felt $56,000 was a more apt award. He said the jury was united, however, on the issue of whether Nelson qualified for whistleblower protection.

“We were unanimous on ‘no,’” the juror said.

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